If Wim van Impel had known more than three years ago that she would be driving to the Czech Republic in a buggy this weekend for the Cycling World Cup, she would have scratched her head.
She was dreaming of a professional career as a soccer player, wasn’t she? Have you ever wanted to play for Bayern Munich? “It’s a little weird. It’s also unreal.”
20-year-old Van Empel finds it especially strange that she is indeed one of the top cross country players. In fact, this early season, there are already four wins behind her name. And all of this in an activity she’s always loved but just to keep her cool during the winter holidays. If there is no football match planned.
She could never have imagined that she could beat Marian Voss and Lucinda Brand, that the teams would line up in front of her and that she would lead the World Cup standings at the age of 20.
It was nothing more than ‘fun’ when the Brabant woman decided to take part in the Dutch National Mountain Biking Championships in the summer of 2019. She didn’t even have a bike suitable for it. “I bought her for that match. I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know anyone and suddenly I was 3rd in U23! I didn’t train for it at all. I walked off the football field like this.”
This football stadium is located in Nuenen, a half-hour drive from her hometown of Den Dungen. “This is close to Den Bosch. People know him better as Maaskantje from the movie New Kids.”
In Nuenen, I played for the local team RKSV, a team in the Eredivisie major. “I had a great time there. It went well. I was a striker. When the ball came in front of goal, I was always quick. The plan was to become a professional soccer player, but then third on the mountain bike, I had to choose.”
She chose what she liked the most, for what caused the itch the most. And it turned out that it was two wheels. They also play a role in the rest of her family. “My dad used to bike once, and my cousin Mickey did too. He rode in Telenet, on the Sven Nys team. My uncle Ad founded the Empella cycling brand.”
I had just returned from the US and still had jet lag, doping control was at the door at 7.30am.
Once the decision was made — she signed her first contract as a cyclo-cross rider at the beginning of 2021 — she wanted to take it seriously. This included training. “But I didn’t know what to do with the training. Nobody in our house. My dad still had info on someone, so we called him: Aschwin van Oorschot. Immediately I had a good flick with him. He’s got me in a few years time turning from a superstar Football to bicycle rider.
And now among the best ever. During the opening races in the US over the past weekends, the entire World Summit was in attendance, with the exception of Marianne Voss and Blanca Vas. Van Ampel won twice. Celine Alvarado and Lucinda Brand, former world champions, did not participate in a direct duel.
“It takes a bit of getting used to,” continues Van Empel, who also completed an internship in marketing and communication in 2021 in between internships. “Do you have to speak to the press right after the match. Sometimes I don’t know what to say in Dutch, let alone English. And there’s pressure right away. It’s hard. I’m still young. It might be. It was better to stay a little under the radar, With occasional anomalies.”
SD Workx or Jumbo Visma?
But the latter was not an option with her talent. Knowing that her contract with Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal expires at the end of December, she has received offer after offer this year.
“The luxury problem, I had to pick the teams. I hesitated for a long time between SD Worx and Jumbo-Visma. In terms of support, they offer about the same. There were pros and cons. But I still can’t understand outside.”
“Jumbo’s physical location is 3 kilometers from my house and we already knew a lot of people from Jumbo. That was the deciding factor. They also have a lot of experience with men. They can easily pass that on to women.”
With Voss, an eight-time world champion, she will soon have the best teacher at her side. “What if we had a lot of contact? That’s not so bad. I inquired with her about Jumbo-Visma and it was good that she confirmed what I already knew.”
Last season, Wim van Impel defeated Marianne Voss at the ice cross in Val di Sole and won her first World Cup race. After that, Voss praised her young compatriot.
Which also played a role in the choice: she wants to combine three disciplines: cycling, mountain biking and road cycling. Although Fem (“Not short for Femke, that’s my full name!”) doesn’t know exactly how yet.
After the upcoming winter, when you want to ride all the World Cup finals on the field as well as the championships, mountain bike will take center stage first. “But what are my ambitions? It’s hard to say. First I have to train specifically in technique and on the descending. After that I hope to be able to achieve some results with the elite.”
She also finds mountain biking difficult. “When you’re at the top, you wonder how you’re going to land.” She wants to learn everything.
She also has road plans. “But I’m still less experienced with it. I really don’t know what I can do. Multi-day races or one-day races? I always train on the road. I’ve also been to a bootcamp, but not really high-altitude training yet. It’s really An expedition.”
Jumbo-Visma is already helping her with all the challenges, although the contract won’t start until January 1. “They monitor the training sessions, so the transition goes smoothly. They also helped me with the jet lag protocol for a trip to the US, for example.”
She also knows the downside of being a professional cycling pro. Barely back from America and without a decent sleep behind us, the bell rang in Den Dongen on Wednesday morning at 7.30am. “Doping control. Not a UCI jacket this time, but a woman from the Dutch doping authority. Well, that’s part of it. The woman said she could have come earlier, but she wouldn’t have done that.”
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